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A ticking nuclear clock

June 30,2017
At a policy seminar on North Korean nuclear program at the National Assembly last week, many claimed that Korea needs to have a nuclear option since North Korea has nearly completed nuclear armament. In the blockbuster-level arguments on independent nuclear armament and redeployment of strategic nuclear weapons, one question caught my attention: “What time is North Korea’s nuclear clock getting close to?”

A presenter estimated that North Korea is presumed to possess about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of plutonium, and by the end of the year, they will be loaded on 8 to 10 Rodong missiles already deployed in the field. When North Korea actually loads nuclear warheads on Rodong missiles, it is a game changer. The missile’s range include not only U.S. military bases in Korea but also the ones in Japan.

Whether North Korea conducts the sixth nuclear test or successfully develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, a preemptive strike on the North won’t be an option due to the possibility of retaliation using the nuclear missiles. As a threat or not, time is running out for a preventative attack option.

The remark reminds me of last week’s Asahi Shimbun report on Washington’s demand to complete deployment of Thaad by the end of the year, which turns out to be an error as the Blue House denied it. Asahi reported that U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon met with Korean authorities and asked to deploy four additional launchers within the year. The report may not be accurate, but it is concerning that the end of the year is mentioned as the timeline for the Thaad deployment.

The Trump administration declared highest pressure and engagement to resolve North Korean nuclear threats and have all options on the table. Military action is included in these options, and while Thaad is a defensive weapon, it is a core part of preemptive strike. North Korean authorities know that the U.S. forces cannot make a preemptive attack without defense system while flexing muscles in the East Sea, so Washington’s calculation may be to increase the pressure with Thaad deployment.

However, when the scenario of pressuring Pyongyang to initiate negotiation by maximizing fear does not go as planned, Thaad deployment may not be a simple bluff. It is a simple assumption, but it is a vital question and challenge for Korea. Precision strikes could be made before North Korean nuclear missiles are deployed, but it is hard to fathom the damages on Korea from conventional retaliation, such as biochemical weapons. Therefore, we must use the diplomatic and security assets of the Korea-U.S. alliance as leverage.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 30

*The author is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

CHEONG YONG-WHAN